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Ships Ahoy

By Debra Meiburg MW

As Goddess of the sea, Tin Hau is venerated for the protection she offers to fishermen and sailors. Boats have long had a love-hate relationship with the gentle sex. Women are either the source of all bad luck or they bring seafarers the best of fortune. There is a time-honoured tradition for ladies to launch ships by breaking a bottle of champagne against the prow. Ladies aren’t expected to throw the bottle themselves or even swing it against the ship – they are ladies after all – but the feminine sex is expected to pull a rope that swings the bottle against the hull.

Bubbly wasn’t always the liquid of choice for christening a boat. The Babylonians sacrificed oxen, the Ottomans sacrificed sheep and the Vikings purportedly offered human sacrifices when it was necessary to appease the Gods of the treacherous north seas. In later centuries the Vikings settled for libations of blood whereas the ancient Greeks sensibly sipped amphorae of wine while dousing their new boats with water. Until the end of the 17th century, the British Royal Navy launched their ships by tossing a chalice full of precious metal over the side. King William III sensibly decreed that the ‘standing cup’ was too extravagant given the Navy’s rapid expansion and decreed that a bottle of wine be used instead. As a symbol of luxury and celebration, champagne ultimately became the wine of choice and has been used to launch Royal Navy ships for the past 300 years, though in 1996 Britain’s HMS Sutherland was launched with a bottle of Macallan Single Highland Malt Scotch whisky.

While christening ships with alcohol is the norm, the custom wasn’t immediately embraced by all commercial lines. The White Star Line chose to avoid bottle christenings for their ships, which gave traction to the legend that the Titanic was doomed from the start. Stories of bottle-launching calamities abound. After a series of mishaps at sea, the P&O’s Aurora was said to be jinxed because their bottle failed to break the first time at their 2000 launch. A few years ago, passengers on the Aurora’s around-the-world cruise were marooned in Southampton due to engine difficulties. The passenger line offered open bar service during the repair period and the final tally of free beverages included 9,200 bottles of wine and champagne. Surely it would have been cheaper to bang a bottle of Dom Perignon against the prow to change the Aurora’s luck.

When Dame Judi Dench launched the Carnival Legend in 2002, she ceremoniously tugged the rope to bash a magnum of bubbly against the hull, but the bottle didn’t break. Dame Judi then grabbed another bottle, but dropped it overboard while attempting to smash it against the bow. The third bottle did a proper smash-up, but also sprayed Dame Judi in the process, which earned her the nickname Judi Drench. Reportedly she laughed and laughed.

While bubbly has been the christening juice of choice during the past century, others liquids have been used. In 1797, Americans christened the Constitution, later known as ’Old Ironsides’, with a bottle of Madeira. During prohibition, Americans launched their ships with grape juice, apple cider or water – any liquid as long as it did not have the prohibited alcohol. When Mrs. Herbert Hoover christened Akron in 1931, a flock of pigeons was released.

One has to be careful not to take boats and wine too seriously, but surely the Tin Hau celebrations this month (13th April in 2012) warrant popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly or two?

Comments 2 Comments for “Ships Ahoy”
  1. Brenda on 01.09.13 at 03:30

    This tradition is so interesting! I found this infographic that you might like, it’s 20 facts on the inauguration of ships: http://bit.ly/shipinauguratingfacts

  2. Debra Meiburg MW on 01.09.13 at 13:52

    Fascinating, Brenda! Really enjoyed the content and the design/lay-out. Had no idea they score the bottle to ensure it will break! Thanks for posting.

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